3 Emotions That Make You Quit Your PhD (And How To Address Them)

PhD students do lots of stupid things.

But when Jon told me how he planned to end his PhD I was shocked.

I could not believe that a grown man with so much brain power could come up with such stupid decision.

It hadn’t been easy for Jon. As I guess it was not for you either.

He came from abroad to do his PhD. You know the drill. New country. New culture. New research field. Family with high expectations.

He had to get comfortable in his field pretty fast. Obviously the professor was not very responsive.

He had to make this rainy country his. Make new friends. Build a life and a network outside the lab.

He arrived in a transition period when senior PhDs where graduating, postdocs and assistants professors moving out of the group.

There was a void of relatively experienced PhDs to guide him. That didn’t help either.

You might have been there. The initial excitement for the new wears off fast when you realize the sheer amount of things to sort out.

Jon seemed to pull through the first months.

He was determined to make it happen. He read papers. Talked to people. And gave some shape to that fuzzy PhD project.

Last time I saw him nothing was telling me he could fail his PhD.

Fast forward three and a half years…

I met Jon in the supermarket. Still looked the same.

Yet there was an air of resignation around him.

He said he had enough published and submitted publications to build his PhD thesis. He also had the introduction and conclusion chapters ready.

Fantastic right? When I asked when the PhD defense he replied that there might be none.

He was too tired of this PhD. He wanted to send all to shit. He had enough.

I am tired of Frank (his supervisor), he said. All this years fighting and chasing him. I can’t take it anymore.

I am not going to defend this PhD for him. I am not going to give him this satisfaction, Jon said.

Dear reader, do you see what is going on here? What a PhD can do to the brain of a smart person?

Jon was willing to destroy everything he fought during his PhD just out of anger against his PhD supervisor.

Despite being rational people, quite brainy you would say, PhD students also have emotions. And they explode.

Oh boy if they explode.

Jon knew it was stupid to get angry. But there he was, angry. He could not help himself. Neither could I.

I don’t want you, to end up like Jon. I want you to detect the emotions you feel during a PhD and manage them.

Uncontrolled anger. Unfounded fear. Accumulated frustration.

These are the 3 most common emotions that make you quit your PhD.

Let’s avoid that.

3 Emotions That Make You Quit Your PhD

PhD Emotion #1 – Anger

What happened to Jon with his professor, sounds familiar?

I bet you have some angry feelings towards your supervisor. It’s normal.

Do you want to quit your PhD? Wait in line.

I was once angry during my PhD. I mean, I was angry many times, but I will share with you a situation when I reached boiling point.

I had given a detailed presentation to another research group about my research. I presented them the work that formed a paper I had just published.

I hoped we could work together, since our research interests overlapped.

6 months later that group published a cheap refried version of my article in a journal. No mention to my work, no citation.

I felt betrayed.

I felt insulted.

Above all, I was angry.

More than that, furious. Willing to engage in physical aggression kind of angry. Luckily that other group was in a different time zone.

Solution

Empathy

Don’t blame it to people being mean to you, blame it on incompetence.

People don’t have a secret masterplan. Their goal in life is not to humiliate you.

Your professor is not consciously trying to ignore you.

She is not delaying the feedback on your thesis book so you fail your PhD. It’s a tsunami of work, duties and procrastination that make that thesis booklet sink under a pile of tasks.

You need to put on the other person’s shoes. Don’t look everything from a personal point of view. It’s not about you. Assume you are no the target of their actions. You are not the center of what is going on.

What are they going through? Why do they choose to do what they do? Do they have real incentives to behave like this or it just happens?

PhD Emotion #2 – Fear

You see, it seems Jon was angry. Just angry at his professor. But I think he felt also fear.

Look at it from this perspective. Jon was facing a big life change in the near future. Finishing a PhD and facing 2 options:

  • Do I stick to Academia?
  • Should I go to Industry after my PhD?

Both routes are scary.

Academia meant more of the same PhD suffering with the added uncertainty of every 2-3 years having to relocate and secure another temporary contract.

Industry meant starting from scratch again. Working with people that might not value his PhD. And let’s admit (we all have this one) being found finally a fraud, but this time a fraud with a PhD.

Solution

Understand this: you are not the only one.

If you are scared of being found a fraud. Well, we all are. Even your professor.

This feeling doesn’t disappear the higher you climb the ladder, or the more diplomas you accumulate, or the older you get.

There was this Spanish opera singer that was about to retire after 50 years of career.

She asked before her last performance if she still felt nervous before a concert.

Of course! She said. I always do. That fear got a bit tinier during the years, but it never went away. All performers have it.

Do you know who doesn’t feel that fear? Sociopaths.

Understand it is normal to feel fear. We just need to manage it.

If you fear changes, embrace them. They are a great opportunity for growth, for change. At the end of the day, if a change is not scary then it is not good enough.

PhD Emotion #3 – Frustration

Jon was not exploding in the heat of the moment. He hadn’t had a brawl with Frank, the professor.

Jon had accumulated frustration day in and day out during years.

The PhD frustration of not knowing where you are going. Not knowing if you are going to finish or fail.

The PhD frustration of many meetings with your professor cancelled at the last minute.

The PhD frustration of having to wait months to have a draft reviewed.

I could go on for hours. No wonder you consider to quit your PhD. But quitting your PhD is not the answer.

Solution

Focus on what you can do.

That thing that is frustrating you, is it in your control or not? If not, then leave it alone and spend energy on the things you can act on.

You are not going to change the personality (and agenda) of your supervisor. So if you need approval from him and he skips many meetings try getting answers via email, or telephone.

Give a deadline: “I want to proceed with option B. If you have remarks or objections please let me know before INSERT DATE. Otherwise, after that day I will assume you agree.”

These are things you can do. Get cracking 😃

The bottom line …

Fear, anger, frustration, they affect everybody. Not only you.

All PhDs go through the Valley of Shit.

The problem is that you only hear the successes of famous people. Not their struggles.

We share online the highlights of our lives, not the shadows.

Do not get fooled. Everybody is scared. It is fine. It is ok to be scared and feel all this emotions.

You control how you react to them.

To your success.

About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.

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